Counterpoint & the thirst for clarity

I steal the ancient idea of counterpoint from music theory & use it as a kind of mental model to clarify my worldview.

In music, ‘counterpoint’ simply means ‘contrast.’ Broadly, there are two kinds of counterpoint. The first is contrast between sounds happening at the same time: voices singing harmonies, multiple instruments playing unique parts, a guitarist playing with a drummer. This is called ‘vertical’ counterpoint, because the contrasting voices or instrumental parts are layered on top of one another.

A few examples of vertical counterpoint:

    • A bouncy, fast bass line played at the same time as a slow, melodious sax solo
    • A descending guitar riff paired with a rising vocal melody
    • Four distinct melodies played simultaneously by an organist

The second kind of counterpoint is contrast between sounds happening at different times, for example the counterpoint between a chorus & its verses. This is called ‘horizontal’ counterpoint, because the sections are side by side.

A few examples of horizontal counterpoint:

    • The bridge of a song vs. the rest of the song
    • A dramatic change in tone or key
    • Playing strictly on the beat, then deviating from the beat using offbeats (syncopation)

In fact, there are only two soundscapes entirely devoid of counterpoint. The first is a true monotone (one frequency at one volume). The second is absolute silence. Between those extremes, counterpoint—the substance of music—exists.

Composition is the intentional use of counterpoint: juxtaposing different tempos, melodies, timbres of instruments, & so on. There’s a certain organic counterpoint in the hustle-bustle of a city, but it’s not “music” because it’s not purposeful. Composers & songwriters use counterpoint deliberately to make music exciting, creating tension & release, setting up patterns & then breaking them. Not all music with complex counterpoint is beautiful; however, ALL timeless, beautiful music involves sophisticated counterpoint.

When you get in the habit of listening for counterpoint, you start to hear music more clearly. You notice things you never cared about before, like a call-&-response between instruments you might not usually be attuned to. This is especially true if, like most people, you tend to listen primarily to vocals & guitar. With the concept of counterpoint in mind, your brain begins to process the structure & pattern of music on a conscious level. (For instance, you may be surprised by how intricately many songs depend on their bass lines). This not only makes it easier for you to recognize patterns you like; it also helps you understand why you like them. Try it!

What’s even more intriguing is that the more you listen for those interlocking, contrasting patterns in music, the better you’ll get at recognizing interesting patterns in other areas of your life. Like any complex skill—swordsmanship, reading, tennis, calligraphy—listening to music is a discipline which, approached intelligently, sharpens your mind. Awareness of counterpoint, applied in the sandbox environment of music listening, sharpens the contrast of your other experiences & makes them more vivid.

I’m certainly not the first to generalize the idea of counterpoint. Douglas Hoftstadter explored Johann Sebastian’s Bach’s mastery of counterpoint in his popular tome Göedel, Escher, Bach. Hermann Hesse won a Nobel prize for his novel The Glass Bead Game, in which he draws parallels between musical composition & various intellectual pursuits. The film director Lars von Treer even found a way to explicitly discuss counterpoint in Nymphomaniac (Volume 1). Thinkers & creators in many different fields benefit from this high-level study of music theory.

But what does all this have to do with “the thirst for clarity”?

Like our thirst for clarity, the potential depth of counterpoint has no limit. So, you can drink very deeply of this clarifying experience of active understanding. If a piece of music is rich & unique, you can observe a fractal-like effect, hearing counterpoint on both the macro scale & the very granular level.

Finally, as Carl Jung said, the differentiation of opposites (A vs. not A, 0 vs. 1, dark vs. light) is the basis of cognition. Listening for counterpoint in music is a fun, engaging way to consciously practice that foundational mode of cognition. Unlike a finite puzzle, this practice of “applied music theory” is an experience of active thinking limited only by time & space—which turns out to be a good microcosm of our conscious experience.

Everyone can do this. Try it 🙂